The Pirates of Penzance was Gilbert & Sullivan’s fifth collaboration, written in 1879, one year after the opening of the greatly successful HMS Pinafore. It is the third most performed of the G & S collaborations, behind only The Mikado and Pinafore.
From the outset, Pirates was a huge success, and it has come to be thought of as containing Sullivan’s best score. After the London premiere in April of 1880 (Pirates actually had its world premiere in New York on New Year’s Eve 1879 with an eye to securing American copyright), contemporary critics said of Pirates thatits verse and music “were of simultaneous growth, so closely and firmly are they interwoven” that it “presented a clear advance upon its precursors, containing more variety, marked character, and careful workmanship.”
William Schwenk Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) were originally brought together in 1875 by the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, with the intention of developing
a more “proper” or, in a word, “English” alternative to the“naughty” French operettas of Jacques Offenbach and other composers in the French opéra comique tradition. (Just compare Pinafore and Mikado to Orpheus in the Underworld or La Belle Hélène to see how radically G & S converted the genre of light opera!) G & S’s comic operas differ from their French predecessors
in another important way: whereas the French operettas tended towards pure frivolous escapism and sentimentality, G & S’s operettas are primarily satiric, taking on Victorian sexual repression (for example Frederic's reaction to seeing the Major-General's daughters for the first time—and vice versa!), justice, duty, class structure, Victorian “earnestness” and self-righteousness, moralism, and of course politics—all of which we find in G & S’s contemporaries as well: Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Dickens of course, and Shaw not too long after. The enormous popularity of the journal Punch further attests to the growing popularity of satire in Victoria’s time. Also, G & S’s work sublimely deflated the syrupy romanticism of Johann Strauss, and in doing so caught a wave as the middle and upper classes in England were becoming ready to laugh at themselves.
The G & S formula was simple: start with a ridiculous premise and work out the logical consequences. Mike Leigh, the great British film director (who wrote and directed the magnificent biopic of G & S, Topsy Turvy) said it best: “With great fluidity and freedom, [Gilbert] continually challenges our natural expectations. First, within the framework of the story, he makes bizarre things happen, and turns the world on its head. Thus the Learned Judge marries the Plaintiff, the soldiers metamorphose into aesthetes, and so on, and nearly every opera is resolved by a deft moving of the goalposts.... His genius is to fuse opposites with an imperceptible sleight of hand, to blend the surreal with the real, and the caricature with the natural. In other words, to tell a perfectly outrageous story in a completely deadpan way.” Pirates picks up this “topsy-turvy” formula as noblemen-become-pirates-become-noblemen without straining our credulity (which we’ve already parked at the door), while farcically deflating English class-consciousness and obsessive obedience to “duty”. (The subtitle of Pirates is, satirically enough, “The Slave of Duty”.) Noel Coward spoke for much of his generation when he recalled, “I was born into a generation that still took light music seriously. The lyrics were hummed and strummed into my consciousness at an early age. My father sang them, my mother played them, my nurse breathed them through her teeth. My aunts and uncles sang them singly and in unison at the slightest provocation.” And it’s easy to predict there will be few of us tonight who don’t leave our beautiful Queen Elizabeth Theatre like Coward’s nurse, or our own parents, breathing this great score through our teeth, and just possibly singing "Poor Wand'ring One" or "When a Felon's not Engaged in his Employment" to our children and grandchildren, ensuring that this great tradition of English light opera will continue through the years.
Dr. Graham Forst teaches literature, philosophy and opera history at the Continuing Education programs at both the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. In the summer, he lectures on opera history at the Banff Centre. He is a moderator of Simon Fraser
University’s popular Philosophers’ Cafes. He is married to our “Ruth,” mezzo-soprano Judith Forst.